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The many ways we manage unbearable experiences and emotions

Understanding How We Cope with Emotions and Experiences

As human beings, we experience a wide range of emotions on a daily basis. While some emotions can be pleasant and uplifting, others can be uncomfortable or even distressing. In order to manage these emotions, we often rely on defence mechanisms - psychological strategies that help us protect ourselves from unpleasant emotions or experiences.

What Are Defence Mechanisms?

Defence mechanisms are psychological processes that operate in ways that we are often unaware of and help us cope with anxiety, stress, or other forms of emotional discomfort and trauma. These mechanisms are often triggered when we encounter situations or emotions that we perceive as threatening, and they serve as a way to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed by those feelings.

While defence mechanisms can help us deal with difficult emotions in the short-term, relying too heavily on them can ultimately hinder emotional growth and well-being. This is because defence mechanisms often involve avoiding or denying uncomfortable feelings rather than addressing them directly.

Types of Defence Mechanisms

There are many different types of defence mechanisms, each serving a unique purpose in helping individuals manage their emotions. Here are some examples:


Dissociation creates a disconnection between thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. It's a way of compartmentalising or "checking out" of a situation to cope with overwhelming emotions or trauma. Dissociation can take many forms and interfere with daily functioning, leading to long-term mental health problems if left unaddressed.


Repression involves unconsciously pushing unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts or memories out of our awareness. Repression can help protect us from traumatic experiences, but it can also lead to difficulties in processing and dealing with those experiences.


Denial involves refusing to acknowledge or accept a reality that is too threatening or distressing to face. Denial can be adaptive in some situations, such as when someone is initially coping with a difficult diagnosis. However, when denial persists in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, it can become maladaptive.


Projection involves attributing our own unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors to someone else. Projection can help us avoid feelings of guilt or shame, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and damaged relationships.


Rationalisation involves creating a plausible explanation or justification for our own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. Rationalisation can help us maintain our self-esteem and reduce cognitive dissonance (contradictory thoughts and feelings), but it can also prevent us from taking responsibility for our actions and making positive changes.


Splitting involves dividing people, situations, or experiences into "all good" or "all bad" categories, without acknowledging any nuance or complexity. Splitting can help us manage feelings of uncertainty or ambivalence, but it can also lead to interpersonal conflicts and emotional instability.

Projective Identification

Projective identification is the process of inducing in others the thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that we are unable to tolerate in ourselves. Projective identification can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed by our own emotions, but it can also lead to power struggles and boundary violations in relationships.


Humour or sarcasm can be used to cope with stressful or uncomfortable situations. Humour can help us defuse tension and manage anxiety, but it can also be used to avoid dealing with underlying issues.


Withdrawal involves retreating from a situation or relationship that is causing anxiety or discomfort. Withdrawal can be adaptive in some situations, such as when we need time to recharge or process our emotions. However, it can also lead to social isolation, the breakdown of relationships, and missed opportunities for growth and connection.

Recognising and Addressing Defence Mechanisms

While defence mechanisms can be helpful in managing difficult emotions in the short-term, it's important to recognise when they become maladaptive and begin to interfere with our emotional growth. Recognising maladaptive defence mechanisms is a significant part of the therapeutic process. If you recognise any of the above in yourself and are interested in exploring how therapy might be able to help you, please get in touch via the contact page.

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